Running for the Train with Howard Stein

One of my earliest, and most frightening, experiences in New York City was when I first met Dr. Howard Stein at Columbia University in the City of New York to decide if I wanted to attend graduate school with him or not.  Howard was Chair of the Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theatre Studies at Columbia University in the City of New York.

I met Howard on a hot August day and he was in a mighty hurry.  He was late for a meeting at the Shubert Organization in Times Square and we were at Columbia University at 116th Street and Broadway.  If I wanted answers from Howard, I would have to ride the subway to the Shubert Theatre with him.  I told him I was with him and we were off!

Howard had about 40 years on me, but he was always faster and had much more energy than any of his students.  I was gasping for air trying to keep up with him along the brick-lined Columbia College Walk.  He talked.  I listened.

When we descended into the 116th Street subway stop, I lost sight of Howard in the tsouris of people and pets and a set of stairs that ended in a platform only to turn you to move down another set of steeper stairs to the actual subway stop.  This was my first experience in New York City and I’d never ridden the subway before in my life.

As I struggled to find Howard, I could hear his voice yelling at me from afar.

“David!  Hurry!  The train is coming!”  I finally saw Howard standing by the subway turnstile.

I felt the rush of the train sweeping by me and, as I ran to reach Howard, he pressed a subway token in my hand — yes, we had tokens back then instead of swipe MetroCards — and again screamed at me over the roar of the subway to, “Hurry up!  The train is here!”

I didn’t know how to put a token in the turnstile, so Howard pinched back the token out of my hand and shoved it into the coin drop for me and then dragged me through the turnstile and pushed me onto the crowded #2 Express Train.

As I stood there, holding onto a shiny pole on the subway and trying to catch my breath, Howard continued to yell at me, telling me that I had to hurry if a train was coming because you never knew if there would be another one or not.  All I remember about the rest of the trip to Times Square was nodding at him and wiping the sweat from my brow.

In the end, I accepted Howard’s offer of a Shubert Organization Presidential Scholarship from Columbia University, and the first lesson was the best lesson and the last lesson:  RUN FOR THE TRAIN!  You never know if, or when, there will ever be another one.

My wife does not share that New York City running train philosophy and, yes, I do — at times — find myself yelling her down the subway stairs to race for an arriving train, just as Howard dragged me through the turnstile so many years ago and, because of that urgent emotion, we tend to travel separately to keep our beloved marriage healthy.

However, let there be no doubt about the real meaning of Howard’s train lesson:  Grab what you need when it’s right there, because you never know if another opportunity will be there later when you feel ready and you’ve had a chance to catch your breath.

The first train you see may just be the last chance you’ll ever have.

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